Review by Denouement
"Things will never be the same"
Final Fantasy is perhaps the biggest name in console gaming today, and the debut of the tenth game in this tradition is certainly a prime opportunity to compare this game to previous titles, and see what progress we have made. Art, in its best forms, appeals to us on many levels. In this way, the Final Fantasy series can be seen as bringing art to the gaming console. This series, spanning over a dozen games, has proved over and over again that video games can appeal to our minds, as well as our senses. The brand offers not only a game, but also a riveting story that will test you on an emotional level. Final Fantasy X is not an exception--it offers everything that the previous games did--but Square has taken bold new steps in this game, innovating not just in terms of this series, but in terms of all role playing games.
People in general have never given the creators of Final Fantasy enough credit for their innovating nature and willingness to take huge risks. Few series in history with the clout of Final Fantasy have tinkered with the formula so much; we could point to the variety of games released under the Mario label, then the ever-changing Castlevania series, and that would be it. Most blockbuster follow-up games just repeat the formula that made the previous game so successful, adding better graphics and a new story but keeping the same beloved characters, dastardly villains, and gameplay systems. Yet every addition to the Final Fantasy series offers new characters, new villains, and a new gameplay system that must be relearned each time out. It is a tremendous risk on the part of Squaresoft--instead of bringing back Cloud and Sephiroth for Final Fantasy VIII, they introduced an entirely new cast of characters, who in the end were poorly received by the gaming public. It means that as a gamer, one never knows what to expect from the next iteration of Final Fantasy, and it is easy to be disappointed that your favorite aspects of one edition are gone in the next. But it also makes each Final Fantasy worth playing; the experience is wholly new and you can get wrapped up in a new story with each release. You never get the feeling that you are playing through the game just to be able to say, ''I've beaten every Final Fantasy.''
The most significant and noticeable changes Square has wrought for the tenth Final Fantasy are obviously superficial; with the transfer to a new generation of consoles, they had to keep up the level of sensory pre-eminence demanded of them. And the game is not a letdown in this field, by any means. When potential buyers look at the box's cover art, they may be tempted, as I was, to think that the beauty of the full motion videos in Final Fantasy IX could not be improved upon. What one realizes only after beginning the game is that the cover art represents the regular in-game graphics better than the FMVs. Every tiny detail of our world, Spira, has been brought to life; grass and trees waves in the wind, birds fly over the ocean in the distance, and the character figures attain a level of realism that allows you to read the expression on their face. The FMVs surpass those graphics in a way that is truly tremendous, not only in their flawless detail but in the synchronization of the action with the music. The opening FMV demonstrates that quality perfectly: at first, the clam, of our main character sitting peacefully on a bench, dangling his feet in the water, and then the exploding rush of the rock-metal accompaniment as our view expands outward to include a roaring stadium. In-game music offers some changes as well, though mostly in the amount of music Square could store on this DVD-format disc; each boss battle now uses different music, and as the battle progresses the music changes subtly, constantly effected by the condition of the battle.
Yet the polished graphics and sound are only the first changes Final Fantasy veterans will notice, because with this release Square seeks to make fundamental changes to what we call the role playing game. After the first battle, when you rush to check your new stats, you will see it: the familiar system of Experience Points has been done away with. Only after the initial shock, like that of a baby losing its security blanket, does one begin to understand the world of possibilities that this opens up. Character development is now accomplished via the ''Sphere Grid''. After battles, your character may gain a move or two on this massive field of circles and connecting line, and as he moves from one circle to the next he can use special items to activate the node, increasing his statistics or learning a skill, special move, or ability. The beauty of this system is that it creates a balance between a strict job system and free customization; there is an obvious route for each character to take on the grid, so you get a black mage, a white mage, a thief, etc. But at many places characters can cross over from one track to the other--so you can create a thief who uses high-powered spells--and ultimately every character can learn all abilities.
The battle system has been modified as well. The battle meter, showing you how long until your character could move again, is gone, replaced by a graphic showing you the order of moves. Not only does this do away with the interminable waits between moves at the beginning of the game, but it also greatly increases the strategy available to you in battle. Knowing exactly which characters have a move before the boss moves, and in what order, allows you to time and order your special attacks to create the best effects. Beyond this, nearly every aspect of the gameplay has changed in some way, from weapon customization to the minigames.
Even Final Fantasy veterans will enjoy the new variations these changes provide. But regardless, the game would be a blast anyway, just because of the great story. Surely, you will have heard the detractors complaining that Final Fantasy games play like a movie, and, yes, there are places in this game where there are five or ten minutes of FMVs and cut scenes. But we all like a good movie, right? Do not surmise that the terrible actual FF movie represents the best Square has to offer. Final Fantasy X gives you a story that is not only deep, but offers a number of moments that really bring out your emotions. The game is darker than any previous Final Fantasy, from the opening FMV to the final, heart-breaking ending. The lighthearted, humorous moments touch you more deeply than in previous games not only because of their rarity, but because they provide for the characters a moment of respite from their terrible journey. But by avoiding the happy-go-lucky attitude that made VIII and IX almost comic, Final Fantasy X gives us a more realistic and more touching experience. It really makes the player comprehend the terrible conflict that is going on in Spira, and emphasizes the sacrifices that our characters must make, not only in loss and suffering but also in self-sacrifice. The intimate relationship between the main villain and the main hero offers a hint of Final Fantasy VII, but more importantly creates a plot that is about more than just good and evil. There is a personal relationship to the battle as well. In another recalling of FFVII, the game is not so much of a romance as in the previous two games. While our hero Tidus of course has a romantic interest, and their relationship develops through the game, it is the battle between the forces of good and the destructive forces of evil that form the foundation of the plot.
The use of voice acting allows the characters to express themselves in expression and intonation rather than words. The voice actors are well cast. Tidus has a boyish vigor to his words but noticeably gains maturity as the story moves on and he gains a deeper understanding of how important the conflict is. Auron, Tidus' father figure and mentor, is another character who is well developed beyond a simple character model, as he holds a secret that only becomes apparent late in the game, and his deep but confident voice reflects his role as the unspoken leader of the group. All seven main characters are in fact well developed and have a concrete history, which actually explains why they want to join your party. Not only do their histories reveal their intent, but they also come to play a significant role in the main plot of the game. This means that no characters feel worthless or useless, as has happened far too often in Final Fantasy.
There are of course some flaws in the game, areas in which Square has taken a step backward instead of progressing forward. The first of these, and the only real detriment to the game, is that it is highly linear--something people expect of Final Fantasy, but something Square can still improve upon. However, since it makes the incredible story possible, this may be a flaw gamers have to accept. It would be impossible to accommodate such a convoluted plot while giving gamers a great deal of freedom in decisions, and the game redeems itself by throwing open the whole world once a certain point in the story is achieved. Early linearity is countered by complete freedom toward the end. Beyond this, the main minigame, and underwater sport called blitzball, is somehow less engrossing than the card-playing games featured in Final Fantasy VIII and IX, perhaps because the games of blitzball take a long time and are rather slow. It does contribute far more to the story than cards ever did, however, and thus flows better within the context of the game, rather than seeming ''spliced in'' as the card games did. Again, however, it represents the spirit of change that inspires this tenth incarnation of the series.
Returning to the concept of Final Fantasy as art, it is apparent in this game that the creators of Final Fantasy X have great respect for more traditional artists working in accepted art mediums--painters, sculptors, etc. Temples, shrines integral to the powers of summoners, are a major part of your journey in the game. Inside, these temples are truly decorated beautifully, with statues surrounding the central floor, murals on the walls, and so on. But FFX does more than just pay homage. It is in its own right artistic by any definition; through their story, its creators are expressing something personal to their audience. As you come further along in the story, you realize the depth of the world and the ways it connects to our own. There is obviously a message to Final Fantasy X, but unlike the two Final Fantasies that preceded it, this game avoids pounding the moral message into the player with a sledgehammer. There are no lines like FFIX's ''You don't need a reason to help someone.'' In FFX this message is woven into the story from the beginning, for a more subtle effect which not only reflects the message but colors the whole game. It is a story about personal sacrifice for a greater good and the power of love not only to affect to people but to change the whole world. This message is certainly the bright point in such a dark journey.
In short, Final Fantasy X does not disappoint fans, as it shows off in abundance the three factors that are common to all Final Fantasies--great graphics, great music, and great story. Moreover, Square takes the same steps it usually does to keep the game fresh and interesting, and expands these changes so that they affect not only gameplay but the very tenor of the game. Moreover, the game is as deep as any Squaresoft game, and the huge number of things to do, to say nothing of simply playing out the storyline, easily recommends this game for a buy rather than a rent. It therefore receives the same rating that virtually ever Final Fantasy game will garner--for Final Fantasy fans, this is yet another charmer that will leave you hooked for a good forty hours. And if you have never played a game in this series, you might as well start here, with Final Fantasy X.
Reviewer's Rating: 4.5 - Outstanding
Originally Posted: 10/11/02, Updated 04/10/03
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